Published on:

The Fatal Design Flaw Chrysler Knows About But Won’t Fix

trend-gas-tank-fire-300x169Remington Walden, a 4-year-old boy from Georgia, was driving with his aunt on a spring day in 2012 when a pickup truck rammed into the back of their 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Though the pickup truck caused only minor exterior damage to the Jeep, it punctured the vehicle’s fuel tank. Within seconds, Remington Walden, who was fully conscious, was engulfed in flames. He died about a minute later.

Walden’s death was many things: a tragedy, a life taken too soon, and every parent’s worst nightmare. It was not, however, unavoidable. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which manages the Jeep brand, was officially warned on at least three separate occasions that 1993–2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees had a substantial design defect. The fuel tanks were mounted behind the rear axle, an anomaly in the car industry, making them extremely vulnerable in rear-end collisions. When hit even at low speeds, the tanks produced deadly fires.

The first warning came in 1998, when the Chrysler employee who managed the crash test program told his superiors that the gas tank in the 1999 Grand Cherokee was “vulnerable and would be crushed in a rear impact.” He also said that Chrysler, like all auto companies at the time, knew the safety benefits of placing the gas tank near the center of the vehicle.

Chrysler chose to move ahead with production anyway, despite the risk.

In 2009, years after the model was introduced, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) recognized a dangerous pattern of fire deaths in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees. As a result, the CAS called for both a defect investigation and a recall of all the vehicles. CAS executive director Clarence Ditlow explained, “to be blunt, Chrysler is content with letting its customers burn to death… This is the most callous decision I’ve seen ever seen by a manufacturer.”

Chrysler chose to ignore the warning.

Finally, in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided to launch an investigation into Jeep’s gas tank design defect. The NHTSA noted that in their preliminary examination, they found that 55 people had died from gas tank fires since 1992. Chrysler refused to take action, not even to send their customers a warning about these older models.

Two years later, Remington Walden was killed in the car fire.

Chrysler’s refusal to comply with safety regulators follows a disturbing pattern in the auto industry. In the 1970’s, the Ford Pinto, much like the Grand Cherokee, was vulnerable to gas fires. Yet even after numerous reported deaths, Ford chose not to recall the vehicle. A subsequent investigation found that Ford knew of the design defects in the Pinto, but calculated that the cost of a recall would be greater than settling lawsuits with complainants. Simply, keeping the cars on the road was cheaper.

Just months after Remington’s death, the NHTSA concluded that 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees “present an unreasonable risk to motor vehicles” and should be recalled. They noted in their findings that the vehicle exposed drivers to double the fatal incident rate compared with its competitors. Defiantly, Chrysler refused to comply with the NHTSA’s action, instead recalling only 1993-1998 Grand Cherokees.

The very same model that Remington died in, the 1999 Grand Cherokee, remains on the roads. It appears likely that Chrysler has taken a page out of Ford’s business playbook.

Though Remington Walden’s family will never be able to bring back their son, they did hold Chrysler responsible in a civil lawsuit. The jury found Chrysler ninety-nine percent responsible for Remington’s death, and awarded the Walden family $120 million. Although an appeals court later lowered that number to $40 million, it agreed with the underlying finding that Chrysler had acted “with reckless and wanton disregard for human life.” The appellate court judge wrote in her findings: Remington “could have grown up to be anything in life: a firefighter, an engineer, a lawyer, or a CEO with unlimited earning potential.” If only Chrysler saw the same value in human life as the judge, Remington might very well be eight years old today.

References:

Barth, Liza, “NHTSA to investigate 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees for fire risk,” Consumer Reports, 25 August 2010.

Borris II, Frank, Director of the Office of Defects Investigation, U.S. Department of Transportation, Letter to Matthew W. Liddane: Head of Vehicle Concepts and Integration, Chrysler Group, LLC., 3 June 2013.

http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/acms/cs/jaxrs/download/doc/UCM439144/INRM-EA12005-2111.pdf

Carty, Sharon, “Chrysler Defies Government Request To Recall Jeeps,” AutoBlog, 4 June 2013.

Scanlan, John, “$40M damage award to parents of child killed in Jeep accident upheld” Wolters Kluwer: Law and Business, 16 November 2016.

Trader, Steven, “$40M Damages Award Affirmed In Fatal Jeep Fire Suit” Law360, 16 November 2016.